(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.
1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?
My name is Jason Luong, and I am the incumbent Democratic Judge of the 185th Criminal District Court in Harris County, a felony district court. I have over 21 years of legal experience as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and a judge. My wife is a Marine Corps veteran and former intelligence analyst. My oldest daughter attends St. Martha Catholic School and formerly trained with the Houston Ballet. I also have a 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. My son is destined to be fighter pilot and astronaut. I am fairly certain that my youngest daughter will one day be elected as the Harris County District Attorney. I come from a family of public servants. My father worked for the City of Houston for over 20 years. My mother worked for the Houston Police Department for over 20 years. I am also the Presiding Judge of Harris County’s Felony Veterans Treatment Court.
2. What kind of cases does this court hear?
The 185th Criminal District Court handles felony criminal charges, where the range of punishment can range from 6 months in the state jail all the way to life in prison or the death penalty. Drug charges, assaults involving a deadly weapon or serious bodily injuries, third time DWI’s, homicide, sex assault cases and crimes against children are just a few examples of the felony offenses that this court hears.
Felony Veterans Treatment Court is a specialty court that handles cases involving veterans who suffer from service-connected PTSD, traumatic brain injury or addiction and have serious felony charges that relate to service-connected disability. The mission of this court is to increase access to mental health and addiction treatment for those veterans with felony offenses. This court seeks to divert veterans from prison to into VA treatment, reducing jail time, costs, and criminal recidivism, while improving mental health recovery and successful re-entry into the community.
3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?
When I first took the bench, I (and the other judge) faced unprecedented challenges from not having a permanent courtroom because of the damage to the criminal courthouse due to Hurricane Harvey to a pandemic that shut down jury trials and limited court proceedings for several months. I successfully navigated the 185th through these challenges while still having jury trials and expanding public access to our courts. As we head out of the pandemic, our court’s clearance rate has increased dramatically month over month and has been well over 100% for the past several months, and sometimes as high as 115%.
One of my proudest accomplishments as a new judge and as the new Chair of the Harris County Criminal District Court’s Bail Bond Committee is that I have overhauled the way that bond violations are handled by the district court. Previously, notices of bond violations went only to the judge, which gave the judge inordinate power and judges often revoked defendant’s bonds without a hearing. Now notices of bond violations are sent to the prosecutors as well as defense attorneys, making the process more transparent and fairer. It also gives the court the tools to more immediately and effectively address bond violations, keeping our communities safer while still ensuring that bonds are fair to indigent and low-income defendants.
I am also very proud of my work as the Veterans Treatment Court judge. I am only the third judge to ever preside over this court. This program literally saves veterans lives. Veterans in our program are often suicidal, self-medicating, and/or a danger to themselves and their families. Veterans Treatment Court is a collaborative effort involving a team of over a dozen professionals including VA psychiatrists to develop an individualized treatment plan to help that veteran get the mental health or addiction treatment he or she needs. Though these services are provided through our criminal court proceeding and often results in the veteran avoiding a felony conviction, the main goal is to allow the veteran to re-connect with the community and his or her families and loved ones.
4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?
I hope to build on the reforms that we started in 2019, especially in terms of how our criminal district courts operate. COVID taught us that there are much more efficient was to run our courts than requiring persons miss work and come to court once a month. We have expanded court proceedings to allow people to attend court by zoom or to have their appearance waived for non-essential court settings. I also hope that my court and all criminal courts have expanded access to mental health services for all defendants, including when they are on bond. The Harris County criminal court is the single largest provider of mental health services in the state. Many of these individuals do not get consistent and reliable mental health services. I would like to work on expanding the availability of mental health services to all persons charged with a felony offense, including having services when they are on bond.
5. Why is this race important?
This race is important because our criminal courts are important. Harris County is one of the most important criminal jurisdictions in the country. The 185th District Court handles the most serious criminal offenses, including crimes against children, serious drug cases, and murder.
This race is a chance for the citizens of Harris County to elect a judge who has the experience and temperament necessary for this high office. Furthermore, it is a chance to ensure that our criminal courts reflect the diversity of Harris County. I am the first and only Asian American elected as a criminal district court judge in the history of Harris County. Diversity matters for our courts. People will always be distrustful of law enforcement and the criminal justice system if they do not see any diversity in the positions of power. If Harris County wants to be a 21st century county, its courts need to reflect the strength and diversity of its communities.
6. Why should people vote for you in March?
The people of Harris County should vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate in this race. I have over 21 years of legal experience—three times as much experience as any of my opponents. I am the only candidate in this race who has experience prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and a judge. Also, I have shown through my time of the bench that I have the work ethic, character and judicial temperament make me the best candidate for this court. Finally, because of my good work and qualifications, I have received the endorsement of almost every organization endorsing candidates in this race from the Houston Chronicle to the Houston Black American Democrats to the Houston Association of Women Attorneys to the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston. Simply put, though my opponents are each accomplished young trial attorneys with some good ideas, I am by far the most qualified candidate for this court.